Kathryn Bigelow Responds to ZDT’s Critics; Still Doesn’t Get It

It’s a slightly reworked repeat of what she’s already said, published as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.
Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

Indeed, I’m very proud to be part of a Hollywood community that has made searing war films part of its cinematic tradition. Clearly, none of those films would have been possible if directors from other eras had shied away from depicting the harsh realities of combat.

On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.

Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.

In that vein, we should never discount and never forget the thousands of innocent lives lost on 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks. We should never forget the brave work of those professionals in the military and intelligence communities who paid the ultimate price in the effort to combat a grave threat to this nation’s safety and security.

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.

Again (because many Internet commentators have made this point), Bigelow is trying to have her cake and eat it, too. She says that depiction is not endorsement, which is true, but she ignores that the context in which depiction occurs, matters. By placing the torture in the context of the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, and by not depicting any of the tension and conflict that existed within the intelligence community, and between the FBI and the CIA, over the efficacy of torture versus traditional interrogation methods, Bigelow is effectively saying that torture, although a nasty business, did contribute to a glorious conclusion; namely, the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. That is, at the very least, a distortion of historic truth.

Bigelow keeps saying that we can’t and shouldn’t deny that torture occurred after 9/11. But who has suggested or asserted the opposite? Certainly not those of us who oppose torture, on every possible ground — pragmatic, moral, and legal. Bigelow may have missed this, but opponents of the CIA’s torture program have been working to expose it and end it and hold responsible the people who designed it and carried it out since it began shortly after 9/11.

What Bigelow’s critics have decried about Zero Dark Thirty is the film’s dishonesty, as Jesse Kornbluth eloquently laid out in his call for a boycott of the film (emphasis is mine):

Zero Dark Thirty starts with phone calls from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and moves rapidly to detainees being waterboarded and twisted into positions not seen in nature. That torture produces a clue. Which is useful when the film turns to traditional investigative methods.

Yes, we tortured. But that sequence of events is wrong. In the film — and as a matter of widely-acknowledged fact — it’s only the traditional methods that pay off. No matter. Frank Bruni put the film’s takeaway bluntly it in a recent New York Times column: “No waterboarding, no bin Laden.”

Or as a headline in the New York Post has it: “Waterboarding is necessary. Gitmo worked. Bush was right.”
It’s no accident that we’re seeing sharply divided views on those torture scenes. By front-loading the film with the gruesome reality of torture — but not presenting a single character who sees what’s happening and condemns it as illegal, immoral and ineffective — director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, her screenwriter and co-producer, get to have it both ways.

Kornbluth goes on to shred the filmmakers’ claim that ZDT only “depicts” torture without “endorsing” it:

Mark Boal has been interviewed about the fact vs. fiction element in the film. (To read it, you need to get around the Wall Street Journal‘s pay wall. Google “Zero Dark Thirty Takes Some Flak” to get a link that works.)

It is, he says, “preposterous to say Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture.” After all, it’s “a movie — not a documentary.” His obligation, therefore, is not to make the movie accurate, but to make it compelling:

“I’m not asking the film to be held to a journalistic standard. I’m asking it to be held to a cinematic standard. If I’d wanted to write a book, I’d have written a book.”

On the other hand:

By necessity, the movie had to be reported because there was very little information to draw on. There have been some books that have come out since we wrapped, but when we started there was very little in the public domain. Given the sensitive nature of the material, we had to do our homework…

Our depiction of the raid was based on pretty meticulous research. We built a replica of bin Laden’s compound on location, and we tried to replicate everything from the equipment used and the wardrobes of all involved to the exact positioning of the house’s occupants and the Seals. I hope it puts the audience right in the scene and lets them feel what it was like to jump off the helicopters and into bin Laden’s house.

And, tellingly:

“My sensory impressions of Vietnam all come from films made contemporaneous to and right after that war, especially The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.”

In other words, Zero Dark Thirty is both factually accurate and a drama “inspired” by fact. Confused? Majorly: I dare you to find consistent logic here. …

Getting back to Bigelow’s op-ed, it’s not just that her claims for the neutrality of ZDT’s message about the CIA’s use of torture don’t match up with the impressions of so many reviewers who have seen the film. It’s also that her own language in the op-ed is inconsistent and self-contradictory. She tells us she is a “lifelong pacifist,” and that she “support[s] all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind” — then rhapsodizes about “ordinary Americans who fought bravely [to defeat bin Laden] even as they sometimes crossed moral lines. …” That’s Bigelow’s emphasis on “sometimes.” So which is it? Does Bigelow oppose torture as well as “inhumane treatment of any kind”? Or does she believe torture was a rare aberration in the battle our noble warriors fought to end terrorism and necessary to achieve that end? If it’s true that, as she says, “War … isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences,” then what are the moral consequences of torture that ZDT portrays? Did brutalizing detainees after 9/11 brutalize the men and women who carried it out? Did they suffer from guilt afterward? Did they have nightmares and flashbacks? Did they have to struggle with feeling that their souls had been tarnished and compromised? Because that’s one of the actual real-life cosequences of torture on torturers. Did the use of torture in the hunt for bin Laden end up degrading Americans’ own civil liberties, and our own sense of right and wrong? If Bigelow is saying that torture is immoral but sometimes it’s necessary, and it was necessary in the hunt for bin Laden, then what’s the consequence of engaging in that immorality? Bigelow is saying that torture was a moral consequence of the hunt for bin Laden. But she does not say — or, more to the point, Zero Dark Thirty does not say — what those consequences were. That seems to me the heart of what’s wrong with her argument that ZDT merely depicted torture as a moral consequence in the “war against terror.” She says that, but then the film also unequivocally says (according to everyone who has seen it, even those who loved it) that torture provided actionable information that led to finding and killing bin Laden. So then the film does not grapple with the moral consequences of the moral issue of using torture at all. It’s a cop-out.


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Kathy Kattenburg

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  • This is not the first time a Kathryn Bigelow movie has generated so much controversy.

    In “The strange ways of Kathryn Bigelow”, Jamie Portman, an editorial writer, music and theater critic, offers his view of Bigelow following the release of her movie “The Hurt Locker”.

    I have had two encounters with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and both of them made an indelible — and unsettling — impression.

    In each instance, one was aware of her simmering anger. This driven filmmaker was not to be trifled with, and any acceptance she received in the industry had to be on her terms.

    On Sunday, she became the first female director to receive an Academy Award, for the gritty Iraq drama, The Hurt Locker. But the greater significance of this victory lay in the fact that she won with the kind of movie she wanted to make — a movie reflecting a violent macho sensibility. Much of her anger over the years seems to have stemmed from her resentment over complaints that she — a woman — should not be making films like this.

    I watched this resentment explode into fury 15 years ago in New York, when Bigelow met the press to defend Strange Days, a violent, nightmarish vision of Los Angeles on the eve of the millennium. Her outburst was triggered by a female journalist who accused Bigelow of gross irresponsibility for making a movie that could encourage violence against women.

    “How dare you!” an outraged Bigelow exclaimed. Her anger was palpable. Later in the day, she cornered the reporter again and berated her for daring to ask such a question.

    Back in 1995, Strange Days polarized critics and audiences. Roger Ebert may have called it one of the best movies of the year, but The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane found it more unpleasant than Showgirls. In Canada, the Vancouver Sun condemned it for its hatred of women.

    Read the rest here

    • Mea culpa, Matt. I’m assuming that since everyone who has seen the film and subsequently written about it agrees that it accepts the view that torture helped the CIA find bin Laden, then we can accept as settled that the film does say that. Even Bigelow doesn’t deny that the film endorses the view that torture helped find bin Laden — she just argues that the film doesn’t glorify torture.

      • Not helped — was a part of the investigation.

        The problem with Zero Dark Thirty — and I’ll expand on this later — is that its ambiguity regarding interrogation tactics and the hunt for OBL highlights what I think is a key failure in anti-torture rhetorical strategy on the part of many torture opponents: the continual (false) equation of utility with morality (ie, torture is wrong because it doesn’t work, not torture is wrong AND it doesn’t work).

        Instead of challenging torture supporters to reinforce their support with a firm moral foundation, we’ve largely asked them to merely prove its efficacy (a far less rigorous demand).

        America has never had difficulty justifying horrific atrocities that led to a desirable end (eg, Nagasaki/Hiroshima). Perhaps the murkiness of Bigelow’s message (and the contentiousness among those who are debating what exactly that message is) is reflective of the fact that the outcome of Iraq/Afghanistan/GWOT is still being decided.

        Or maybe it’s just a commercial Hollywood movie looking to effectively market itself to a specific target audience, and all this (free) hype surrounding the film is giving the suits at Columbia Pictures a group joygasm.

        • Regarding your first sentence: But it did provide a clue that later led to finding OBL, according to everything I’ve read about the film. Which is factually wrong, according to the actual timeline that Kornbluth refers to.
          I agree wholeheartedly that torture is both wrong and ineffective, but I’m not sure that challenging advocates of torture to provide a moral foundation is going to lead anywhere productive, because as you say, historic experience shows they will have absolutely no problem doing that at all. As long as they can convince themselves that torture “works,” then “saving American lives” will always be all the moral foundation they need. That’s why ZDT’s message that torture helped find OBL has to be confronted — because it’s both untrue AND harmful.

  • All of this toing and froing on the issue rather misses the point. Whether coercive interrogation led to ObL is frankly not the question. They didn’t engage in coercive techniques because they had a burning need to find ObL – they engaged in coercive techniques because they were starting from an int state of effectively zero and they were terrified that a second wave of attacks was going to come in and they were going to have to wear that. If you want to understand how they got to the state they did, understand that first and foremost.

    If you want to look specifically at the ObL issue to see whether it backs any of the given parties’ passionately preferred perspective on coercive techniques (did or did not coercive techniques provide useful information in finding ObL?), I wish you good luck (really I would suggest that folks find something less pointless to think about). Something on the order of 30% to 40% of total reporting during the most relevant period came from detainee interrogations (and it would have been even higher given this subject matter focus). A small percentage of those interrogations involved coercive techniques, but those specific interrogations / detainees provided a disproportionate share of the high value, widely cited datapoints. The net effect of this is that evaluating the role that coercive techniques played in producing the dataset that they used during the search is a massive task. One can probably say that there was no smoking gun (i.e., jumping on KSM’s nuts didn’t get him to spill the beans) but to say they didn’t use any tainted datapoints (i.e., datapoints from detainees who had at any point been subjected to coercive techniques) as context and background to rule out other hypotheses? I’m utterly skeptical – int just doesn’t work like that. One thing that I do “know” for damned sure is that the folks running their mouths on it don’t really know – it would take many, many person years to completely rule out use of coercive interrogation datapoints, and the folks doing the talking ain’t done that.

    This type of focus? This is a sucker’s play. It feeds into a “ends justify the means” mode of argumentation that is pretty much doomed. Insuring that folks don’t use coercive techniques in the future involves two things:

    1. a shared value set that you are just not that type of people, and

    2. an established, maintained body of knowledge and experience that makes non-coercive techniques more effective (notably this may involve personal tradeoffs – e.g., generally the more sigs cuts I have, the less I need to jump on someone’s ‘nads).

    • Just to make it clearer, if one cares about the torture issue (and I think one should), one should be extremely reticent to engage with this specific issue. Arguing about whether torture provided useful intelligence on ObL is roughly akin to focusing the post Sandy Hook debate on how many armed guards in schools is appropriate. If ObL is the chosen grounds for argumentation on the issue, that’s a bad choice and one that helps the “pro-torture” camp.

  • Unfortunately, sometimes torture works. As does cheating, lying, stealing, ponzi schemes, bank bailouts of fraudsters, taking steroids, etc.

    I was tortured. I witnessed the torture of others. It works. This is not speculation, but fact.

    The question should not be whether torture works, but instead, what kind of country do you want to be a part of.

    • The issue isn’t whether coercive techniques sometimes provide actionable intelligence, the issue is whether they provide actionable intelligence more reliably (i.e., containing fewer errors and untruths) and with a lower cost than non-coercive techniques. I can use a Ouiji Board to produce actionable intelligence, but Keyhole is a better option.

      • A ouiji board or keyhole could not have made me divulge that my friend Beto would soon be returning but being shot at, blindfolded, stood on the edge of a cliff with a rifle to my head on a remote Mexican desert and being told that I would die if I lied worked quite well.

        • The plural of anecdote is not data. The question isn’t whether it worked with you specifically, it’s what works better with 100 guys or a 1,000 guys over time. It’s whether my commander can plan an op with assurance that the analysis I provide is based on accurate take from the detainee, or whether he’s actually instead basing it on the detainee telling me whatever he thinks I want to hear so I will take his nuts out of the vice.

          It isn’t whether what you said to your interrogator actually turned out to be true or not in the event, it’s about what faith the interrogator and those up the int production and dissemination chain should have had in what you said *prior* to testing it against ground truth. You look at it in the aggregate, non-coercive approaches have greater effectiveness. The only way one can get equivalent guaranteed reliability out of torture is if it’s so extended, with such a high degree of environmental control that non-coercive techniques represent a viable alternative. The only logical reason that one can come to for coercive techniques is if the time is short, the level of knowledge is zero (which together mean that non-coercive means that meet resistance are non-viable), and the consequence is huge. And even then it’s risky as hell. Me, I want to keep my people producing enough on an ongoing basis so that I don’t end up getting myself into that part of the power curve.

          If you don’t want to be low, slow and out of ideas, don’t fly low and slow.

          • Additionally, one could argue that Mexican drug lords have different intentions/expected outcomes when utilizing torture than U.S. military/intelligence (or at least should).

    • I won’t belabor your point that torture sometimes works. It did in your case, and Don, I can’t even begin to imagine — or begin to begin to imagine — what that experience felt like, or what it’s cost you to live with it all these years.

      If the purpose is to terrorize and intimidate, torture works quite well. The truth still remains that torture is an inefficient and unreliable method of gaining factual information that will save lives as opposed to punishing and destroying lives. The question is not whether torture can be proved ever ever ever to work in any instances at all. The question is whether torture is or should be a tool anyone who actually wants truthful and accurate information would or should ever use.

      Also, torture coarsens and corrupts those who use it. As a society, we have become coarsened and corrupted because we tortured human beings for so many years. The question should indeed be what kind of country we want to live in. But I’m afraid that question has been asked and answered a long time ago.

  • There are quite a few things which are effective but not moral. i.e. drones, police states, Guantanamo etc. Don makes a good point, from an earlier post, about smart interrogators learn as much by what you omit or lie about as when you tell the truth. One of the distinguishing features of civilization is a collective moral code.

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